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Aiming for enthusiasts, Dodge reworks 6 vehicles


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Aiming for enthusiasts, Dodge reworks 6 vehicles

Gilles vows to fix design miscues with a vengeance

Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles, shown at the L.A. unveiling of the Charger, says Dodge sometimes dropped the ball on design.

Bradford Wernle

Automotive News -- November 22, 2010 - 12:01 am ET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ralph Gilles pulls no punches when referring to some ungainly Dodges conceived before he became the brand's CEO in 2009.

Listen to Gilles talk about the current Avenger: "That vehicle was a disaster."

Or the previous-generation Dodge Durango SUV, which went out of production in 2008: "I was never a fan of that pig-snouted thing."

Gilles, 40, has been a man on a mission in the past 16 months -- remaking Dodge into a youth performance brand now that it is separated from the Ram truck brand. The results were on display in California last week at the Los Angeles Auto Show and at a ride-and-drive event here for journalists.

"Every time you see a vehicle you're not proud of, it destroys the equity of the brand," he said.

Now all Gilles and his colleagues at Dodge must do is persuade customers to take another look at the six reworked vehicles. The vehicles arrive in late December; marketing launches are scheduled for the first quarter.

Two of those vehicles -- the Durango and the Charger sedan -- will be easier to pitch because they have new exteriors along with extensive engineering changes.

The four others -- the 2011 Journey crossover, Avenger sedan, Challenger coupe and Grand Caravan minivan -- have various engineering changes, such as reworked suspensions, but on the outside they look much like the current models.

Chrysler Group engineers lavished attention on the vehicles' suspensions so Dodge can appeal to driving enthusiasts.

"I'm a big fan of high-end European cars," Gilles said. "Handling doesn't cost you anything."

The new Pentastar V-6 engine, which will be widely used in the reworked vehicles, delivers more refinement, horsepower and fuel economy. All the vehicles get new or extensively refurbished interiors. The color gray has been banned.

"Those of you who liked cheap gray plastic -- it's gone. You can't get a gray interior anymore," said Klaus Busse, head of interior design for Chrysler Group.

A poster child

Ralph Gilles with the new Dodge Durango, which he sees as a cut above the old one: "I was never a fan of that pig-snouted thing."

Now Dodge just needs customers to see all the work it has done.

"We need to get butts in seats," said Marc Seguin, head of Dodge Challenger and Charger marketing. "That will be the tough part."

In part, that means persuading dealers to stock up on vehicles they've been reluctant to order, including the 2011 Avenger, Seguin said.

The 2011 Avenger looks similar to the outgoing model, with new front and rear fascias and Dodge's split-crosshair grille. But it is getting many of the same improvements as the more extensively restyled Chrysler 200, the successor to the Chrysler Sebring. Those improvements include a new interior, optional Pentastar V-6 and reworked suspension.

Dodge plans a marketing splash for the reworked Journey, a vehicle introduced in 2007.

The Journey "launched at a weird time and didn't get the marketing support as the economy started to fall off the cliff," said Fred DePerez, head of marketing for the Durango, Grand Caravan and Journey.

"We're relaunching the Journey as a new vehicle. We're putting our full marketing weight behind the launch."

'Man Van' and marathoners

Dodge is reaching out to new customers using a variety of marketing techniques. For instance, in September Gilles led a group of Dodge brand employees to Virginia Beach, Va., where they ran in the Dodge Rock 'n' Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon.

Gilles said marathon runners are more affluent than typical Dodge owners.

"The average Dodge customer earns $60,000 to $70,000 a year," he said. "The average marathoner's median household income is $120,000, double our normal Dodge customer."

Moreover, a higher percentage of marathon runners are female when compared with the typical Dodge demographic, Gilles said. So Dodge will aim the marketing for Journey and Durango at female customers.

On the flip side, minivan drivers are skewed heavily toward women. But Dodge plans a "Man Van" version of the Grand Caravan geared to men who want to use their minivans for traditionally masculine activities such as hunting and fishing.

RETHINKING DODGE

Dodge significantly reworked 6 vehicles for the 2011 model year. They arrive in dealerships in late December.

1. Durango: Redesigned on unibody platform, new interior, 7 seats, Pentastar V-6

2. Charger: Redesigned front and rear suspension, Pentastar V-6, new interior, new exterior styling inspired by late-1960s Chargers

3. Journey: New interior, retuned suspension, new Dodge grille, Pentastar V-6

4. Avenger: New interior, retuned suspension, optional Pentastar V-6

5. Grand Caravan: New interior, retuned suspension with new shocks, new grille, Pentastar V-6

6. Challenger: New front and rear suspension; new interior; offered with Pentastar V-6, Hemi V-8

Source: Chrysler Group

Read more: http://www.autonews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20101122/OEM03/311229984/1427#ixzz161Fa5AQI

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